O’Hara, Edwin Joseph

Edwin Joseph O’Hara
Born: November 27, 1923
Hometown: Lindsay, CA
Class: 1943
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Engine Cadet
Date / Place of death: September 27, 1942 / South Atlantic,
28-08 S, 11-59 W
Date / Place of burial: September 27, 1942 / Lost at Sea
South Atlantic, 28-08 S, 11-59 W
Age: 18

Before he sailed into history, Edwin J. O’Hara was just another Cadet from the Maritime Commission’s West Coast Basic School. Although he was initially appointed as a Deck Cadet, Edwin O’Hara signed on aboard the SS Mariposa as Engine Cadet on March 14,
1942. However, in a unique twist of fate, Edwin O’Hara signed off the Mariposa after it
arrived in San Francisco on May 3, 1942 due to an infection in his knee. On May 16,
1942 with the infection cleared up and ready for duty he and Deck Cadet Arthur R.
Chamberlin signed on aboard the newly delivered Liberty Ship SS Stephen Hopkins at
San Francisco, CA.

After sailing across the Pacific with war cargo, the Stephen Hopkins called at Durban
and Cape Town, South Africa before sailing across the South Atlantic, bound for
Paramaribo, Suriname. On September 27, 1942 the visibility was reduced due to fog
and haze. Despite having five lookouts no one aboard the Stephen Hopkins sighted
either the German Raider Stier (known as Raider J) or its supply ship Tannenfels until
1235 GCT when they appeared out of the mist. Ordered to stop by the Stier, the
Stephen Hopkins’ master, Captain Paul Buck, refused and turned the ship away from
the Germans to bring his heaviest weapon to bear, a single 4″ gun.

The Stier was armed with six 150mm guns, one 75mm gun, a twin 37mm anti-aircraft
gun and four 20mm anti-aircraft guns with modern fire control and trained naval
gunners. The ship also had two float planes and two torpedo tubes. The Tannenfels
was only armed with anti-aircraft machine guns. Against this armament the Stephen
Hopkins had one 4″ gun, two 37mm and several .50 and .30 caliber anti-aircraft
machine guns manned by a small detachment of Naval Armed Guard and the ship’s
crew.

At 1238 the Stier began firing on the Stephen Hopkins at close range. Shrapnel and
machine gun bullets rained down on the Stephen Hopkins’ crew wounding or killing
several men, including the Armed Guard Commander, Lieutenant (j.g.) Kenneth M.
Willett, USNR. Despite his wounds, Willett got the guns manned and began returning
fire at a range of about 1,000 yards. Willett steadfastly continued to direct fire from the
Stephen Hopkins on the two German vessels while the ship’s Captain, Paul Buck,
maneuvered to keep the ship’s stern pointed at the German ships. In their exposed
post the Naval Armed Guard crew was decimated by shells and machine gun bullets,
leaving only the wounded Willett to keep the 4″ gun firing at the Stier’s waterline,
inflicting heavy damage. When the ammunition magazine for the 4″ gun magazine
exploded, Willett was out of action. However, Cadet Edwin J. O’Hara who was nearby
rushed forward to take his place firing the five shells left in the ready service locker.
O’Hara fired the five remaining shells on the Tannenfels, before being mortally wounded
by enemy fire.

After twenty minutes of intense shelling with the ship on fire and sinking Captain Buck
gave the order to abandon ship. The Second Assistant Engineer and the steward
lowered the only undamaged lifeboat over the side, and several other crew members
lowered rafts. When last seen Lt. Willett was cutting loose life rafts. The lifeboat then
made the rounds in the water, collecting those crew members on rafts that it could
reach until the men in the lifeboat could no longer see in the fog and mist. One raft with
five men, including possibly Captain Buck, could not be reached and was never seen
again. The survivors were able to see the Stephen Hopkins sink stern first and shortly
afterward heard the detonation of the Stier’s ammunition magazines, sinking that ship.
Only nineteen of the sixty men aboard the Stephen Hopkins made it to the lifeboat,
including five wounded men. Among those who did not survive the battle were Cadets
Edwin J. O’Hara and Arthur R. Chamberlin.

On September 28 the survivors of the Stephen Hopkins set their course west for South
America. After a voyage of 31 days and 2,200 miles, fifteen of the men arrived at Barra
do Itabopoana, Brazil, on October 27. The survivors told the story of the Stephen Hopkins’
fight with the two German ships to Timothy J. Mahoney, the American Vice Consul in
Brazil the next day. However, press reports of the Stephen Hopkins did not appear until
December.

When the press was able to report the story of the Stephen Hopkins the ship was hailed as a “Hero Ship” and cited the action as the first between a  German surface raider and U.S. merchant ship which resulted in sinking the raider. For the action of September 27, 1942 the SS Stephen Hopkins, and its crew, were awarded the U.S.Maritime Commission’s Gallant Ship Unit Citation.

The men of the Stephen Hopkins were also honored by a grateful nation. Lt. (j.g.)
Kenneth M. Willett, USNR was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.
Of the crew, Paul Buck, (Master), George S. Cronk (Second Assistant Engineer), Joseph Earl Layman (Second Mate), Richard Moczkowski (Chief Mate) and Ford Stilson (Chief Steward) were awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. The awards for Buck, Layman and Moczkowski were made posthumously.

For his brave sacrifice of his own life in manning the Stephen Hopkins’ 4″ gun and firing the last five shots into the Tannenfels, O’Hara was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

last 5 shells

 

 

 

 

 

                                  Artist’s Depiction of Edwin J. O’Hara Firing SS Stephen Hopkins’ Last Five Shells

Five ships were named in honor of the crew of the Stephen Hopkins and of the ship itself.
SS Paul Buck SS Richard Moczkowski
SS Edwin Joseph O’Hara SS Stephen Hopkins II
USS Kenneth M. Willett (DE 354)

The President of the United States takes Pleasure in Presenting the Merchant
Marine Distinguished Service Medal to
Edwin Joseph O’Hara
Engine Cadet on SS Stephen Hopkins
September 27,1942
For extraordinary heroism under unusual hazards.

Two enemy surface raiders suddenly appeared out of the morning mist to attack the
small merchantman upon which he was serving. Heavy guns of one raider pounded his
ship, and machine guns from the other, sprayed her decks for one-half hour at close
quarters. The heroic gun crew of O’Hara’s ship exchanged shot for shot with the
enemy, placing thirty-five shells into the waterline of one of the raiders until its crew was
forced to abandon their sinking ship. The gun commander was mortally wounded early
in the action, and all of the gun crew were killed or wounded when an enemy shell
exploded the magazine of their gun.

At the explosion, O’Hara ran aft and single-handedly served and fired the damaged gun
with five live shells remaining in the ready box, scoring direct hits near the waterline of
the second raider. O’Hara was mortally wounded in this action. With boilers blown up,
engines destroyed, masts shot away, and ablaze from stem to stern, the gallant
merchantman finally went under carrying O’Hara and several of his fighting shipmates
with her.

The magnificent courage of this young cadet constitutes a degree of heroism which will
be an enduring inspiration to seamen of the United States Merchant Marine
everywhere.

For the President
Admiral Emory Scott Land

Cadet Edwin Joseph O’Hara was one of six Academy Cadets / Cadet-Midshipmen to be
awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and the only cadet to receive the award
posthumously. O’Hara Hall, the Academy’s Athletic Center, is named in his honor. In
addition to the Distinguished Service Medal and Gallant Ship Unit Citation, Edwin J.
O’Hara was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal, Combat Bar, Atlantic War
Zone Bar, Pacific War Zone Bar, Victory Medal and Presidential Testimonial Letter.

Edwin J. O’Hara was the youngest son of Joseph C. and Elma Fugle O’Hara. He grew
up on the family farm near Lindsay, CA where his father grew oranges and wheat.
According to his younger sister Dorothy O. Norris, Edwin was a member of the Future
Farmers of America who disliked sitting at a desk and needed to be “doing things”. In
his off time he worked on three old cars and dreamt of seeing the world. As graduation
from Lindsay High School approached he started looking for ways to turn his dreams
into reality. Although the Navy’s submarine service interested him he was also
interested in the Maritime Commission’s Cadet program which had a Basic School at
nearby Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. However, with the war still distant
Edwin’s parents persuaded him to attend a local Junior College in the spring of 1941.
However, by December 7, 1941 he was 18. He applied for the Cadet program and was
quickly accepted. Dorothy recalls that on his only weekend leave home from the Basic
School his family and friends found a new and happier man than they had known
previously. However, all to soon his leave was over and he was away to sea, never to
return  except to the pages of history as a symbol to all Kings Pointers of the motto, Acta
non Verba.

Photo of Edwin Joseph O’Hara Lindsay High School Graduation – 1941

4 thoughts on “O’Hara, Edwin Joseph

  1. i am a KP graduate, deck 1962 and sailed as a third mate before i entered law school. i am reitired.. i have copied the above article for a research project on cadet o’hara. thanks. ron

  2. Edmond J. O’Hara and the other 141 Kings Point undergraduates lost to enemy action came from all parts of the United States. They died fighting a relentless foe defending our freedoms.
    I believe that a suitable monument commemorating the !42 Kings Point undergraduates lost in enemy action during WWII should be located somewhere in the the nations capital, in addition to the memorial on the Kings Point campus.
    I presented this idea at a local USMMAAA chapter meeting and at a national meeting at Kings Point several years ago. I have heard nothing since.

  3. Read the book by Gerald Reminick, Action in the South Atlantic, the Sinking of the German Raider STIER by the Liberty Ship STEPHEN HOPKINS, for a full description of the events before, during and after the sinking of the Steir and Hopkins and the role of the Cadet-Midshipmen Chamberlin and O’Hara.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *